Americans are a complex bunch.
Consider the American mind on the state of American crime circa 2015: Americans are worried. They think crime is going up in the United States, and most Americans think crime in this country is a pretty serious problem. But we should also consider this about the American mind on the state of American crime circa 2015: Americans are not so worried, at least not when it comes to what are called confrontational crimes — robberies, muggings, that sort of thing.
These findings are contained in a pair of new Gallup polls released recently, both of which describe what Americans said when asked about how they feel about crimes. These feelings capture a sentiment, a snapshot of a moment in time, one undoubtedly informed by factors both personal (whether an individual has recently been the victim of a crime) and environmental (whether someone consumes any form of news or media, which inevitably means seeing and hearing stories about death and destruction and various crimes).
And so the first poll asked Americans about the amount of crime in the country. Is there more? Is there less? Or is it roughly the same? Americans believe there is more, and they say this by a considerable margin, with seven in 10 Americans stating that crime is up over the same time last year. By comparison, about 18 percent — just under one in five Americans — say crime is down.
These feelings are being expressed at a time when homicides are up in dozens of U.S. cities, prompting concerns from law enforcement officials. Some concerns are being expressed in private meetings, others are being expressed in very public speeches. Is crime actually up? We don’t really know for sure. The FBI’s big report on crimes committed in the United States in 2014 only came out last month, so we won’t have the federal government’s official tally of crimes for some time.
But we do know that crime was down last year, just as it was down last year from the year before, and just as it has fallen in recent decades. Still, even though crime has fallen over the years, Americans have pretty consistently said they felt that crime was up:
You can see a decline in the numbers Gallup found in the mid-to-late 1990s, with more and more Americans saying that crime was falling. In October 2001, for the only time since Gallup began asking this question in 1989, more Americans said there was less crime (43 percent) than more crime (41 percent). A year later, Americans again agreed crime was up (62 percent felt this way), and a majority have expressed that opinion ever since. (If you are wondering what prompted the change, Gallup points to the D.C. sniper shootings, a three-week horror in October 2002 that saw 10 people killed and three others injured in one of the country’s most notorious violent sprees.)
FBI data show that the number of violent crimes, a figure that includes murder and rape, has fallen over the last two decades, dropping to 1.1 million last year from 1.7 million violent crimes in 1995. The number of property crimes, a tally that includes burglaries and stolen cars, fell to 8.2 million from 12 million in 1995. Still, about the same number of Americans think crime is up now (70 percent) as felt that way in 1996 (71 percent), as crime began to decline.
The current number of Americans who think crime has increased is higher than it has been at any point since 2009, when 74 percent of people felt this way. According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in 2009 turned out to be 431.9 per 100,000 people, marking the third consecutive year that number fell.
This is a problem most Americans say is pretty serious, too:
But if that is what Americans think, how do they feel about it on a personal level? Well, they’re not all that personally worried, to be honest with you. Concerns about specific crimes — measured in terms of how often people say they regularly or occasionally fret about something — have really fallen. Some Americans are worried about getting mugged or having their car broken into, but they are less worried than they have been about this:
Americans are pretty worried about some things, though. About seven in 10 Americans say they are frequently or occasionally worried about hackers stealing their credit card information, concerns that follow a series of high-profile data breaches. A similar number of people is worried about identity theft. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that more than 17 million Americans were victims of identity theft at least once last year.) Otherwise, most people said they were not overly worried about these other issues. A quarter of people are concerned about being the victim of terrorism. Most people — more than four out of five Americans — say they rarely or never worried about being the victim of a hate crime or getting murdered or being assaulted or killed by a coworker.
All told, you have an American population believing that crime is going up, convinced that crime is a serious problem and not really thinking about many particular crimes. Some of this may simply be due to the information we absorb from the world around us. A quarter of Americans told Gallup last year that that they or someone in their household were the victim of a crime. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, if you consume any form of news or interact with any kind of media, you are undoubtedly seeing a litany of horrors, a regular accounting of shootings, crashes, attacks, assaults and general despair. People are inundated with reports of crimes and criminal acts. Most people, however, don’t seem to believe we have to worry about many of these things.